What it's like to live in the second poorest city in America.
Depending on which report you look at, Buffalo hovers just above the bottom of the piggy bank, jostling spots with other perpetual bottom dwellers Miami, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and of course Detroit. As little as a week's pay can raise or lower a city's standing. According to the most recent surveys, Buffalo is second poorest city in the United States, a title that doesn't boast quite the same excitement or good feeling the second richest city does. It's best described as a shaky breath of relief, like paying the cell phone or cable bill just before it’s shut off. Commuting to work is a 20 minute trip, taking me five and a half miles through the streets of Buffalo. On Friday I did a count; in the 5.5 miles it took for me to get home from work (entirely within city limits), I counted 80 abandoned buildings including business and residential. This was taking my normal route. If you think that number is high, consider this: Buffalo has somewhere around 18,000 abandoned houses. That’s more than all of the McDonald’s in the United States. Who knows how many abandoned businesses there are. It's interesting to note that the city of Buffalo is the largest owner of residential property, having picked up properties people discard. The current tally is around 4,000-5,000, or a quarter the vacancy. They do fix up homes to resell to first time home owners, but this practice is done half-heartedly, a generous descriptor. The majority of houses sit until fire or natural decay seals their fate with an emergency demolition order in the amount of $20,000. I used to explore and photograph similar abandoned buildings. Used to. Seeing an abandoned structure no longer has a thrill for me. Maybe because I see 80 of them twice a day five times a week. Maybe I've just become desensitized; viewing each building as another piece of Buffalo nobody gives a shit about, not even city officials. They're just happy to have a job, unlike a quarter of the people that live here. Almost all forms of crime here are at least one and a half times the national average. Murder is 2.86 times the national. 28 people have had their life cut short this year so far. It’s often stated that crime can happen anywhere at any time. In Buffalo does this play out most clearly. Dusk, late night, early morning, mid day people have been robbed, beaten, shot at, raped, stabbed, or assaulted. Homes have been broken into or set ablaze, not one part of the city is considered safe from crime. An unspoken rule exists here, if you happen to be white and driving through any part of the east side, the poorest and most unsavory part of the city, you do not have to stop for red lights after dark. Anecdotally, I’ve hear more than one story of the lost or wandering encountering police and being told to “just keep going and get out”. I’ve been lucky, in a sense that I’ve only had a car window broken and not met a worse fate. That unfortunate fate is what keeps me at home most of the time, though I would rather be walking through a park or riding my bike along the river and through the city. Buffalo has started installing surveillance cameras in the most crime ridden and high potential areas; it does nothing to reassure me. If you were to ever visit downtown in the morning or at the lunch hour, you would scarcely believe your eyes. Daytime shows a busy, bustling metropolis which surely must be growing. Come 9pm or later however, the workers have gone back to their suburbs and the businesses are closed, a veritable ghost town it becomes. It’s common to travel through half the downtown section without seeing a single person, apart from an occasional homeless individual making their way to the shelter or park. I once had the misfortune to arrive at the bus terminal after the closing hours. I had nowhere to go and there are no establishments within view of the bus station. A lone woman on a desolate street is not a situation I wanted to put myself into, so I hunkered down for the night in the brightly lit terminal, kept company with a few travelers waiting for later busses, and armed police security. As I left the next morning, several cops where arresting someone for dealing drugs in the restroom. Not to be completely bleak, Buffalo does have something of nightlife. The entertainment district is located about a half dozen blocks from the core. Consisting of a handful of bars and catering to the under 30 crowd, it lives in a narrow three block area, bordered by a mix of low-income and historic homes and shuttered businesses. The Elmwood strip is further from downtown, a mile and a half of shops and restaurants segmented every few blocks by churches and homes. This area generally shuts down earlier than the entertainment district. After living here a while I've tried to justify the regressive and oppressive nature of things, to tell myself it's not that bad living in Buffalo. But every time I visit another city, reality slaps me in face and reminds me that yes, it is THAT bad. Most people I’ve met here call Buffalo their hometown. Those that don’t rarely stay long enough to put down roots. To illustrate statistics, it’s said that every day seven people leave Buffalo. I’m resigned in my fate that I must live here for a few more years, but I look forward to the day that I’m one of those seven and say goodbye.